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Effects of Air Pollution on Pregnancy

Topic Overview

Of late, there has been a significant rise in air pollution. This has a wide range of menacing effects on the health of people. Studies have shown that air pollution apart from affecting major organs of the body also has adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes. There have been a number of studies conducted which confirm a link between air pollution and negative pregnancy outcomes even though the results of the studies have been quite variable.[1,2]

As a result, researchers concluded that more work needs to be done to have a concrete knowledge of the extent of damage caused to pregnant females when exposed to polluted air. What the researchers do know is that air pollution can be a primary reason behind a number of birth defects including preterm labor, low birth weight, and being small for gestational weight. Among these, low birth weight was the most commonly found abnormality in babies whose mothers were exposed to air pollution during their pregnancy.[1,2]

Effects of Air Pollution on Pregnancy

Exposure to ozone and particulate matter was believed to be the most common cause for all these abnormalities.[1,2] The information below highlights how air pollution impacts pregnancy with whatever data that is available with the researchers.

How Does Air Pollution Affect Pregnancy?

As stated above, it has been verified by various studies that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is a major contributor to various birth defects. By air pollution one does not mean the pollutants present in the external environment. Indoor pollution in the form of second hand cigarette smoke impacts pregnancy outcomes equally badly.[2]

The effects of air pollution on the fetus are dependent on various factors including the time of pregnancy when the female is exposed to the pollutant. The duration of the exposure also is a contributing factor. The third and the most important factor is the specific pollutant that the female has been exposed to. Study data mentions that pregnant females living in polluted areas like around a factory are more likely to have negative effects on their pregnancy than people who live in pollution free zones.[2]

Additionally, lack of proper food and nutrition during pregnancy, emotional well-being, and good parenteral care also play a role in affecting the outcome of pregnancy. The types of air pollution that impacts pregnancy include pollution from smog, pollution caused from fire and smoke including cigarette smoke, and pollutants in the form of toxic chemicals or working in industrial areas during the duration of pregnancy.[2]

Continuous exposure to chemicals used for cleaning and paints also can affect pregnancy outcomes. However, the results of the studies are so widespread that experts still do not have a fair idea as to why the congenital abnormalities occur for some females exposed to air pollution and not for others.[2]

Thus, it is very tough to predict the pregnancy outcome of a female exposed to air pollution even though there is a high risk of abnormalities.

Some of the negative impact of air pollution on pregnancy includes the following:

Preterm Labor: Researchers conclude that females who live in polluted areas are more at risk of experiencing preterm labor than others. Preterm labor in turn increases the risk of the baby having a low birth weight. The lungs of such babies are also not developed properly and they need to be put in incubators. There are also high chances of the baby not being able to survive.[2]

A study done in 2019 analyzed the effects of pollutants like ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide on pregnancy outcomes and found a link between these pollutants and preterm labor. Even though there was a link established but what was not proved was that these pollutants were a direct cause of preterm labor and there were other factors also at play there.[2]

Stillbirth: A female is known to have a stillbirth if she loses her baby after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Another study done in 2018 also establishes a link between air pollution and stillbirths. This was seen more in the third trimester of pregnancy.[2]

Low Birth Weight: This is yet another complication that has been linked to air pollution even though it has not been proven to be direct causative factor. Studies suggest that air pollution has been linked to problems with delivery, underdeveloped lungs, and developmental delays.[2]

Lung Development: There has also been an association established between air pollution and underdeveloped lungs after delivery of the child. This is due to preterm labor as has been mentioned above. Additionally, a link has also been established to chronic respiratory problems like asthma due to the mother being exposed to air pollution.[2]

Aside from the problems seen with the baby, air pollution has also been linked to problems to the expecting mother with many pregnancy related complications being identified.[2]

According to a study done Pennsylvania about birth outcomes due to air pollution, it has been mentioned that exposure to air pollution during the first trimester of pregnancy increased the risk of preeclampsia and hypertension. These are conditions that not only harm the mother but also the baby. The findings of the study further established the link between air pollution and low birth weight and preterm labor as mentioned in other studies.[2]

How To Prevent Negative Effects Of Air Pollution In Pregnant Females?

It is not possible to control pollution levels these days. However, the best one can do is to follow certain instructions like:[2]

  • Taking pregnant females to areas where there is little in the way of smoke or other air pollutants. It is also mandatory to do away with second hand cigarette smoking till the duration of the pregnancy.
  • It is also helpful to have the home checked out for asbestos as it is also an ingredient for indoor pollution affecting pregnancy.
  • It is better to install a carbon monoxide detector
  • Always cover the face when cleaning or painting to prevent any inhalation of toxic chemicals which may harm the baby
  • Avoid going out at a time when traffic is at its peak as this is when the air pollution is at its maximum.[2]

To summarize, air pollution has been associated with many adverse pregnancy outcomes. Various studies have been done to establish this link even though the results have been quite varied. Despite the link, it cannot be said for sure that air pollution was the causative factor in many of the birth defects.[1,2]

Based on the limited data that is available, preterm labor, low birth weight, and delay in development have been found to be the most common abnormality linked to air pollution. While one cannot control the levels of pollution in the external environment, it is definitely possible to keep the home free of any pollutants. This can be done easily by keeping the house clean.[1,2]

Care should be taken to cover the face when painting or when around any toxic chemicals. Avoid smoking cigarettes near pregnant females. Avoid going outside at peak traffic hours are some of the ways one can avoid air pollution and pave way for a healthy pregnancy outcome and avoid any complications.[1,2]


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 19, 2021

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